By Reed Fischer
By Anna Gulbrandsen
By Jeff Gage
By Stacy Schwartz
By Natalie Gallagher
By Erik Thompson
By Jeff Gage
By Loren Green
Considering that Ashlee Simpson let MTV document the making of her debut album, it's not unfair to laugh off her claim that "Boyfriend," the lead single from I Am Me, is not about her dalliance with Wilmer Valderrama, the star of That '70s Show otherwise known as Lindsay Lohan's ex. Simpson's appeal hinges on who she is in real life: Though last year's Autobiography is far better than her detractors claim, the only reason the album was made is because Ashlee's older sister had her own wildly successful MTV series first (and because the Simpsons' dad is a shrewd if creepy showbiz genius).
Which isn't to suggest that Ashlee doesn't have more to offer than reality-show dirt--even if the knowledge of her 2004 Saturday Night Live debacle makes a sky-cry-try ode to perseverance like I Am Me's "Beautifully Broken" easier to stomach. As on Autobiography, Simpson's liberally tweaked vocals here are a thing of hoarse wonder. For "In Another Life," she summons the weathered sass of a woman twice her age, while in "L.O.V.E." she manufactures enough attitude to jockey producer John Shanks's paranoid disco thump.
As Simpson's principal songwriting architect, Shanks overrelies on recycling this time. The central riff of "Boyfriend" has anchored at least two Franz Ferdinand tunes; "Coming Back for More" lifts elements from Ace of Base's "Beautiful Life;" the chords in "Beautifully Broken" equally support the melody of the debut's "Pieces of Me." But Shanks's new dance-rock additives provide welcome flavor; the gorgeous "Dancing Alone" awaits its feud-ending cover by the Killers and the Bravery.
Before Wilmer there was Ryan Cabrera, the spiky-haired goofball who calls Ashlee his "best friend in the world" in the liners to his second album. Cabrera had a hit last year with "True," a terrific power ballad for junior-high kids too young to have appreciated Extreme's "More Than Words" (and too smart for Frankie J's wack cover). You Stand Watching finds Cabrera gamely nipping at the heels of older piano men such as Gavin DeGraw, but like I Am Me, it's lacking in the unapologetic brattiness we expect from these folks. More drama, please.